In Porto by the banks of the Douro an old man is dancing as though he wants to shake the devil out. His eyes are closed and there’s sweat on his brow and bald scalp in spite of the chilly breeze. Not far from the old man is a guitarist: twenty-something, lanky, bearded and sporting a top knot. He’s playing for the tourists waiting for their river cruises and cares not for the old man, this stomping, shimmying addition.
The visitors listen but with a quizzical eye on the dancer. My mother and I watch from a nearby café. Sipping vinho verde, I imagine he’s conjuring his lost love back from the dead. He spins and lifts his arms. I feel as though I’m missing something. Perhaps it isn’t that he’s seeing things, maybe we are the ones who can’t see the love of his life for whom he turns and moves his head with such determination, using his body to move through space and time.
There amongst the bars, buggies and postcard stands, he’s oblivious: just living life to the furious strum. It’s funny how music animates our form, how it can own us. To the crowd, this broad little man is lost in the rhythm but to himself he’s found, he’s with his lover in the autumn air.
The musician shakes his head and tries to ignore this moth to his flame by changing song abruptly to drive him away. It is the territorial and dismissive swat of a player who wants no accompaniment, an entertainer who won’t share the spotlight. His actions speak and say:
“The past is a disease, forget it. Don’t watch him. Listen to me.”
Though the old man remains undeterred, my fist tightens around the stem of my wine glass and I think what a traitor to his ancestors the guitarist is.
Picturing my grandfather and his bride, on the first waltz of their wedding day, I recall the poet Yeats:
Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance, how can we tell the dancer from the dance?
I remember my grandmother waving me goodbye, doing a little Charleston on her doorstep. All smiles and curls before the cigarettes got her. How she loved to twirl and kick but in the end she could barely shuffle from her bed to her chest of drawers without stopping for breath.
In my mind’s eye I see myself at five, taking over the dance floor to You Can’t Hurry Love with my father on a ferry from Rosslare to Cherbourg while the other adults around me clutch their stomachs and groan as the ship rock.
Now, gazing at the old man seems like an intrusion. It is in daylight and in public but this dance of his life, full of the stories from his heart and soul, seems so intimate and not meant for all of us to see.
My mother leans in and whispers: “Alzheimer’s?”
“Probably,” I nod.
The song finishes, the audience applauds, and the old man is still dancing.